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Jun 29, 2017

Music Lifted as Prayer: An Organist Shares His Passion

Michael Ruszala

Music has always been an important part of my faith journey. Currently serving as a parish music director and organist after working for years in other ministries, I’ve grown deeper in appreciation for music as ministry and worship. Technical skill is to the spirituality of music ministry as the body is to the soul. It must be enlivened and lifted up by it. For King David, father of the Psalms, music was worship, and he has always been an example to me from the Scriptures.


Some of my first memories of religious music were from family prayer with my mother around the organ at home. This inspired me to take music lessons. Then when I was ten, I was asked to play piano for a small monthly children’s Mass. I was nervous to do it, but I kept at it all through high school, learning to select music based on the readings and the liturgical seasons. Later on I became a cantor for Sunday Mass. The psalms spoke to me more than ever before. I would remember them and pray them throughout the week, especially through various situations in life: “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul” (Psalm 19:8); “The Lord is my light and my salvation … of whom should I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1).

Later involved in a charismatic prayer group, I was called upon again, this time to provide music for the prayer meetings. The gatherings were Spirit-led from beginning to end. Nothing was planned in the meeting; it always began with praise and continued as the Spirit wished to lead it. The same became true of the music. Music came to help internalize the message, whatever it might be, and to allow for a response and expression in voice and body. Sometimes the music itself was part of the message. Although different from liturgical music at Mass, this experience of music ministry was very formative for me.

The Role of Music in Worship

David was the father of sacred music in the Bible. There are only a few instances of music for religious purposes in the Bible before David. His music, which was lifted and anointed by the Spirit, gave expression to his prayer. When David played his harp, the evil spirit tormenting Saul departed (1 Samuel 16:16). When David faced difficulties, he wrote psalms (Psalm 57:1). Music had a role in David’s personal life of prayer but increasingly also in liturgical prayer for the assembly of Israel. When David brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, he danced before it, playing the harp (2 Samuel 6). As king, David appointed Levites as temple musicians so that there would be a great harmony raised to the Lord at all times (1 Chronicles 9:36). They handed on their roles as temple musicians from generation to generation, playing before the Lord in priestly attire. Later on, the heritage of sacred music in the Church sought to emulate David’s example in giving expression to the psalms. (For more, see my book David and the Psalms.)

Where I am in Buffalo, there is a strong community that preserves their Catholic and Polish heritage. Older people, in their childhood stories, often mention the words of the hymns they learned and the lessons that came through them. They were catechized through the words they sang, whether about the virtues of the Blessed Virgin Mary or the doctrines of the Holy Eucharist.

That’s part of why I started children’s choirs at the churches I’ve worked at, whether my primary position was in faith formation or music ministry. In addition to being a musical exercise, it was liturgical catechesis—learning the Mass through song, explaining the words of the hymns and the Mass parts, focusing on the action of the Liturgy and thereby avoiding other distractions, starting each gathering with prayer to make it clear that we were there to praise God and assist in the congregation’s worship. Some of the best faith lessons came through reflecting on hymns and Mass parts. The children responded to the music and grew in truly participating in the Liturgy, not only externally but also internally. During Christmas, teaching children’s choir is especially rewarding to me since so many children today do not otherwise know the basic Christmas carols that we’ve taken for granted for generations. Children’s choir has also been an evangelization tool to engage families, build community, and even bring in more children who have not yet received the sacraments or catechesis.

Finding the Right Hymns for the Liturgy

One of my favorite parts of being a parish music director and organist is taking in the Sunday readings and finding hymns that might best direct the worship of the congregation for this particular liturgy. Sometimes I find ways to brings out a particular sense of solemnity for a particular occasion or find a musical response to a call in the readings for a change of heart. Sometimes I draw out a theme that might not otherwise be obvious or building off the homily. I also try to find a mix of what speaks to various personalities in the congregation while also expanding their horizons to the universality and the traditional heritage of sacred music. Feedback has always been important in getting a sense of what touches the heart. Sometimes the words of Scripture resonate in the mind throughout the day after Mass particularly because of their expression in the music.

I find playing and singing at funerals to be a particular privilege because music adds solemnity and dignity to the occasion, helping soothe the grieving heart. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss with the family the personality and faith of their loved one and help find music that helps to best celebrate the liturgy, also emphasizing prayers for salvation and hope of redemption. It is my hope that the experience of the beauty of sacred music will also be a call to those in attendance who are not yet evangelized.

Singing in the Spirit raises us as one Body into a sense of God’s presence in worship. Both music for private prayer and liturgical worship can help us internalize, respond to, and give meaningful prayerful expression to God’s Word.

What role has music played in your faith journey?

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The Psalms: Prayers from the Heart of a King

Psalms: The School of Prayer

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